by Rob Moseley
When Oregon's two-deep for Saturday's opening game of the 2014 season was released, it listed three potential starters at running back, each separated by the word "or."
Turns out it might have been most appropriate to list the Ducks' starter against South Dakota as Thomas Tyner "and" Byron Marshall "and" Royce Freeman. Oregon's three-headed monster in the backfield shared the load in the Ducks' 62-13 win over the Coyotes in Autzen Stadium, accounting for 412 yards of combined total offense.
"Having three guys in the backfield gives us a lot of different options," UO offensive coordinator Scott Frost said. "We have an abundance of talent there, and we want to try to get them on the field."
Tyner, the sophomore from Aloha, started Saturday's game and finished with a team-high 11 carries for 54 yards. Marshall, the Pac-12's top returning rusher from last season, thrived in the all-purpose role vacated by De'Anthony Thomas, rushing for 90 yards on eight carries and catching eight passes for 138 yards and two touchdowns.
And Freeman, who generated considerable hype with his performance in preseason camp, justified it with touchdowns on two of his first three carries, eventually finishing with 75 yards on 10 rushes.
"The speed of the game was pretty fast," Freeman said. "It took some adjusting. But I was helped out there by Marcus (Mariota) and the other guys. They got me through it, and it was fun."
It was fun to watch, too. Marshall's new role and Freeman's impressive debut overshadowed Tyner's night, though his securing of the starting job spoke volumes about the sophomore's development since last season.
Marshall entered the game four plays into the Ducks' first series, and Oregon scored immediately on a 62-yard pass from Mariota to Dwayne Stanford, capitalizing when South Dakota stacked the box against the two running backs. Marshall joined Tyner in the backfield again on the third play of Oregon's second possession, and the junior caught a 41-yard touchdown pass on a wheel route.
"We were really clicking tonight on everything," Marshall said. "The rhythm was good, so that helped a lot."
Marshall ran for 1,038 yards as a sophomore, most among returning players in the Pac-12 this season. He spent the offseason adjusting to the all-purpose role played in the past by the likes of Josh Huff, Kenjon Barner and Thomas, taking advantage of Marshall's considerable skills as a receiver.
Not only did Marshall show off his hands Saturday, he also absorbed several big hits on receptions over the middle, while hanging onto the ball.
"It's more ways for the offense to be on the attack," Marshall said of his versatility. "It's hard for the defense to match up. I had a good time tonight."
The one exception was at the end of a 53-yard run in the first half. It should have been a yard longer, and worth six points, but Marshall dropped the football just before crossing the goal line. Upon video review, the Coyotes were awarded a touchback.
"That was a terrible mistake," Marshall said. "I've never done something so stupid before."
Freeman first entered the game on Oregon's third series, and ran for nine yards on his first touch. On his second, the 230-pound freshman bulldozed his way into the end zone from one yard out, and Freeman's very next carry was a 26-yard touchdown run around the right end.
Freeman said he had been unfazed by the hype generated during fall camp.
"We just try, as Men of Oregon, to have our own expectations and do the best we can on the field," Freeman said. "We'll always have room for improvement, so there's plenty to work on next week."